Many congregations across the nation gather each year to observe “Watch Night Services,” special services conducted on New Year’s Eve. During this time individuals gather together to sing, pray, and close out the old year and celebrate the start of the New Year. Indications are that such New Year’s Eve services may have been introduced in England a hundred years prior to the Civil War. In a discussion of “Watch Nights and New Year’s Days of the Past” Duane V. Maxey mentions that Watch-Night Services may have originated with the John and Charles Wesley, with the first one observed by them on December 31, 1738 — January 1, 1739. Thus, John and Charles Wesley, founders of Methodism, observed such before they later enjoined the observance of “Watch-Nights” upon Methodists in 1789. Maxey also notes that originally, Methodist “Watch-Nights” were often observed on many other dates besides the “Watch-Night” service on New Year’s Eve.
In the United States, Alternatives for Simple Living notes that in 1770 “watch night” services on New Year’s Eve were started by St. George’s Methodist Church in Philadelphia and were designed to provide an alternative to secular New Year’s Eve celebrations.
“Watch Night Services” have special significance in African American communities. According to Charyn Sutton of the Onyx Group, the tradition of such gatherings can be traced back December 31, 1862, also known as “Freedom’s Eve.” On that night, Blacks came together in churches and private homes all across the nation, anxiously awaiting news that the Emancipation Proclamation actually had become law. Then, at the stroke of midnight, it was January 1, 1863, and all slaves in the Confederate States were declared legally free.
When the news was received, there were prayers, shouts and songs of joy as people fell to their knees and thanked God. The tradition of Watch Night Services continues to be observed in many churches, particularly African American congregations, across the land.
Brett Zongker of the Huffington Post reported that this year, the Watch Night tradition will follow the actual Emancipation Proclamation to its home at the National Archives where a special midnight display is planned with readings, songs and bell ringing among the nation’s founding documents. Performances and re-enactments are scheduled to continue throughout New Year’s Day. The U.S. Postal Service will unveil a new Emancipation Proclamation stamp as well.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the signing of the official document which bears Lincoln’s signature and the United States seal, setting it apart from copies and drafts. It will make a rare public appearance from Sunday to Tuesday – New Year’s Day – for thousands of visitors to mark its anniversary. On New Year’s Eve, the display will remain open past midnight as 2013 arrives.
“We will be calling back to an old tradition,” said U.S. Archivist David Ferriero, noting the proclamation’s legacy. “When you see thousands of people waiting in line in the dark and cold … we know that they’re not there just for words on paper.
“On this 150th anniversary, we recall those who struggled with slavery in this country, the hope that sustained them and the inspiration the Emancipation Proclamation has given to those who seek justice.”
As we approach another “Freedom’s Eve,” we reflect upon the past with deepest gratitude for our journey, thus far along the way, and look ahead with anticipation of even greater triumphs ahead in 2013.